Whenever I write in these pages about the corrosive effect of Big Government upon the citizenry in Britain, Canada, Europe, and elsewhere and note that this republic is fairly well advanced upon the same grim trajectory, I get a fair few letters on the lines of: “You still don’t get it, Steyn. Americans aren’t Europeans. Or Canadians. We’re not gonna take it.”
I would like to believe it. It’s certainly the case that Americans have more attitude than anybody else — or, at any rate, attitudinal slogans. I saw a fellow in a “Don’t Tread on Me” T-shirt the other day. He was at LaGuardia, and he was being trod all over, by the obergropinfuhrers of the TSA, who had decided to subject him to one of their enhanced pat-downs. There are few sights more dismal than that of a law-abiding citizen having his genitalia pawed by state commissars, but him having them pawed while wearing a “Don’t Tread on Me” T-shirt is certainly one of them.
Don’t get me wrong. I like “Don’t Tread on Me.” Also, “Don’t Mess with Texas” — although the fact that 70 percent of births in Dallas’s largest hospital are Hispanic suggests that someone has messed with Texas in recent decades, and fairly comprehensively.
In my own state, the Department of Whatever paid some fancypants advertising agency a couple of million bucks to devise a new tourism slogan. They came up with “You’re Going To Love It Here!,” mailed it in, and cashed the check. The state put it up on the big “Bienvenue au New Hampshire” sign on I-93 on the Massachusetts border, and ten minutes later outraged Granite Staters were demanding it be removed and replaced with “Live Free or Die.” So it was. Americans are still prepared to get in-your-face about their in-your-face slogans.
No other nation has license-plate mottos like “Live Free or Die.” No other nation has songs about how “I’m proud to be a Canadian” or “Australian” or “Slovenian” — or at least no songs written in the last 20 years in a contemporary pop vernacular. And yet, underneath the attitudinal swagger, Americans are — to a degree visiting Continentals often remark upon — an extremely compliant people.
For example, if you tootle along sleepy two-lane rural blacktops, the breaks in the solid yellow line are ever farther apart. One can drive for miles and miles without an opportunity to pass. Unlike the despised French surrender monkeys, Americans are not to be trusted to reach their own judgment on when it’s safe to pull out and leave Gran’ma eating dust. Odd. But these days what can Americans be trusted with? You may have noticed those new lime green pedestrian signs sprouting across the fruited plain, in many cases where no pedestrian has been glimpsed in years. Some new federal regulation requires them to be posted wherever pedestrians are to be found, or might potentially be found in the years ahead. I just drove through Barre, Vt., which used to be the granite capital of the state but, as is the way, now offers the usual sad Main Street of vacant storefronts and non-profit community-assistance joints and whatnot. For some reason, it has faded pedestrian crossings painted across the street every few yards. So, in full compliance with the Bureau of Compliance, those new signs have been stuck in front of each one, warning the motorist of looming pedestrians, springing from curb to pavement like Alpine chamois.
The oncoming army of lurid lime signs uglies up an already decrepit Main Street. They dominate the scene, lining up in one’s windshield with the mathematical precision of Busby Berkeley’s chorines in Gold Diggers of 1935. And they make America look ridiculous. They are, in fact, double signs: One lime green diamond with the silhouette of a pedestrian, and then below it a lime rectangle with a diagonal arrow, pointing to the ground on which the hypothetical pedestrian is likely to be hypothetically perambulating. The lower sign is an exquisitely condescending touch. A nation whose citizenry is as stupid as those markers suggest they are cannot survive. But, if we’re not that stupid, why aren’t we outraged?
What’s the cost of those double signs — 300 bucks per? That’s the best part of four grand we don’t need to have wasted on one little strip of one little street in one small town. It’s not hard to see why we’re the Brokest Nation in History: You can stand at almost any four-way across the land, look in any direction, and see that level of statist waste staring you in the face. Doesn’t that count as being trod on? They’re certainly treading on your kids. In fact, they’ve stomped whatever future they might have had into the asphalt.
A variant of my readers’ traditional protestation runs like this: “Americans aren’t Europeans, Steyn. We have the Second Amendment, and they don’t.” Very true. And Vermont has one of the highest rates of firearms ownership in the nation. And Howard Dean has a better record on gun rights than Rudy Giuliani. Or Chris Christie. But one would be reluctant to proffer the Green Mountain State as evidence of any correlation between gun rights and small government.
If I’ve sounded a wee bit overwrought in recent columns, it’s because America is seizing up before our eyes. And I’m a little bewildered by how many Americans can’t see it. I think about that chap at LaGuardia with “Don’t Tread on Me” on his chest, and government bureaucrats in his pants. And I wonder if America’s exceptional attitudinal swagger isn’t providing a discreet cover for the shriveling of liberty. Sometimes an in-your-face attitude blinds you to what’s going on under your nose.
– Mr. Steyn blogs at SteynOnline (www.steynonline.com).